IT’S BEEN A tradition since childhood: My
October birthday is never without my favorite
dessert: a heaping slice of Costco’s pumpkin
pie (alight with candles, of course), topped
with an equal portion of whipped cream. I’ve
tried many a pumpkin pie in my day, but,
hands down, nothing lights up my taste buds
more than the delightfully spicy custard and
perfectly textured crust that Costco’s bakers
mix to perfection each year. And at $5.99, you
can’t even attempt to make your own for less
(or have it taste nearly as good).
I’m certainly not the only member who
counts down to Costco’s pie season (which is,
for the record, September through December).
Offered as a bakery staple since 1987, the pies
are definitely incorporated into many members’ holiday traditions. Last year, 5. 3 million
pumpkin pies flew out of Costco bakeries
across the U.S., 1. 75 million of them in the
three days leading up to Thanksgiving.
Curious as to what it takes to bring these
pies to members’ tables each year, I found
myself amid never-ending rows of orange and
green on a pumpkin farm near Peoria, Illinois,
I stood with Wally Hochsprung, canning
plant manager of Seneca Foods, one of the
companies that grow, process and package
pumpkin puree for Costco’s pies. Seneca’s
pumpkin sector is based in north-central
Illinois. Hochpsrung’s plant processes 70,000
to 90,000 tons of pumpkin (conventional and
organic) each year. That’s a lot of pie.
Illinois grows about 90 percent of the
nation’s pumpkins (ornamental and baking),
on account of the area’s ideal growing condi-
tions: nutrient-rich soil and warm, dry
weather. Since pumpkins lie on the ground,
wet weather, combined with the fruit’s vines
and broad leaves, can produce mold and other
factors that ruin the crop. In fact, Hochsprung
says that the 2015 crop year (being used this
season) was a rough one, due to the unusual
rain during planting. Many fields had to be
replanted several times. “We are pretty much
locked into nature,” he says.
Picking up a pale orange, oblong pump-
kin (some are even white), Hochsprung says,
“This is more of an industrial pumpkin that
we have. It’s a Dickinson variety. It’s a little bit
heartier than, say, the Jack-o’-Lantern pump-
kin, and the meat is thicker. Ours are typically
10 to 12 pounds.” He explains that the
Dickinson pumpkin has a stronger pumpkin
flavor, which makes it ideal for baking.
Pumpkin seeds are planted in May,
while harvest and production run
from mid-August to early November.
As I watched the harvest in
action, employees operated equip-
ment that gathered the pumpkins
into straight rows and clipped
them from their vines (a process
called windrowing). Two
machines followed; one scooped
pumpkins into an auger system
that then popped them into the sec-
ond machine, what looked like a cross
between a tractor and a dump truck.
That machine then carefully dumped
pumpkins into the trailer of a large semi.
Nothing was done by hand.
Pumpkins are trucked to Seneca’s canning facility and offloaded onto a conveyor
belt, which leads the raw pumpkin through
several cleanings before entering the building. Employees supervise the mechanized
processing equipment; pumpkins are
chopped, de-seeded (the seeds are sold to a
bird feed company), de-stemmed, chopped
Connection reporter Hana
Medina ;lls this month’s
consumer reporter slot
with this behind-the-scenes
look at a Costco program.
Email questions about this
article to buyingsmart@
E S OUR DIGITAL EDITIONS
Click here to watch Costco’s patch-to
pie-process. (See page 14 for details.)
again, separated from their skin, cooked,
heated and mashed into puree. Hochsprung
says pumpkins are about 98 percent water, so
much of the initial cooking process is done to
evaporate water content.
The puree is then poured in precise
amounts into waiting cans (gallon-size for
Costco’s run). Once canned, the puree cooks
again in large drum barrels for five and a half
hours before being cooled, labeled and
shipped to Costco’s warehouses.
Hochsprung says it takes three pumpkins
to fill one of Costco’s gallon cans. And Costco
bakery buyer John Gavino says it took more
than 1. 1 million cans of pumpkin to make 5. 3
million pies. That means U.S. Costco mem-